Charles Wright: Yes, London needs a Camden Highline and a pretend hill at Marble Arch – and so does the rest of the country

Charles Wright: Yes, London needs a Camden Highline and a pretend hill at Marble Arch – and so does the rest of the country

Do we really need an artificial hill at Marble Arch? Or a new “Manhattan makeover” walkway by London Overground tracks behind King’s Cross? What about a new concert hall in the Square Mile? Or that 305-metre tulip-shaped viewing platform next to the Gherkin?

Imagining central London’s future, in the current climate in particular, can be a bleak exercise. ‘The city isn’t quite dead yet” seems to be as far as many people want to go, while others embrace their own predilections – the “15-minute city”, the flight to the suburbs, or even an overdue comeuppance for the overweening capital as a whole.

Putting your head above the parapet with an idea for encouraging recovery after Covid guarantees a rough reception, as Westminster Council is finding with its plans for a temporary 25-metre high mound at the end of Oxford Street, offering views across Mayfair, Marylebone and Hyde Park, as part of a wider £150 million revamp for Oxford Street. “Just bizarre” is one of the more polite comments I’ve heard.

The same goes for some of the reactions to the Camden Highline plans, announced last week (artist’s impression above). Somewhat overblown suggestions that it could be London’s answer to the Manhattan original are countered by its dismissal as a “derivative copy of somewhere else” going from nowhere to nowhere. Take your pick.

It seems Westminster is pushing ahead with its temporary hill, but some questions remain around the longer-term £35 million Camden project and plans for new world-class concert hall by the Barbican has, of course, already been abandoned, with sceptics asking if London hasn’t got enough concert halls already.

Meanwhile, the fate of Norman Foster’s Tulip, opposed by City Hall and Historic England, currently rests with communities secretary Robert Jenrick. The National Gallery’s £25-£30 million plan to revamp its entrances, creating an “inspirational, world-class welcome attuned to visitors’ expectations”, has been questioned too, when cultural institutions elsewhere are under threat. 

These sorts of reactions aren’t new. The London Eye was condemned as a “folly” by official design watchdog the Royal Fine Art Commission, with its chairman Lord St John of Fawsley comparing it unfavourably as a commemoration of the millennium with the “brilliant and socially useful” Jubilee Line extension. Take note that the “folly” is now the most popular paid-for visitor attraction in the world.

And then there was the Garden Bridge, which collapsed under the weight of sustained criticism even before a girder was put in place. This was typified by the Guardian, an early adopter of London-bashing, as not only a “worthless vanity project” but also the “peak of the capital’s narcissistic hubris.” So, guilty either way.

Both the Garden Bridge and the new concert hall plan were products of an alliance between Boris Johnson when he was Mayor and George Osborne was he was Chancellor. The first was killed off by Sadiq Khan and the second, part of the Tory pair’s short-lived “long-term economic plan for London”, was derailed by Brexit, the 2019 general election and Covid. 

While neither project may have stacked up and serious questions were raised about governance and value for money in respect of the Garden Bridge, even Margaret Hodge’s review of the latter, which sounded its death-knell, accepted a basic principle behind it. 

“One of the most important responsibilities that the Mayor of London enjoys is to take action to continually enhance London and make it a better and more attractive place for people to live in, work in and visit,” she wrote.“Renewing the infrastructure through innovative “grands oeuvres” is vital to ensuring that London maintains its leading edge as one of the most appealing capital cities in the world.”

If that was true in 2017, the impact of the pandemic makes it even more true today, as bleak forecasts pile up, particularly for a Central Activities Zone (CAZ), bereft of its commuters and the almost 22 million overseas tourists who visited in 2019. The latest, from the London Property Alliance, is here.

This matters, because, as Khan reminds us regularly, “when London thrives, the whole country thrives”. The capital’s economy accounts for a quarter of the UK’s economic output and before the pandemic contributed a net £38.7 billion to the Treasury. 

Research for City Hall by Arup, Gerald Eve and the LSE, published at the beginning of February, spells this out: “As the UK begins its road to economic recovery, it will need the CAZ’s strength and fiscal contributions in order to build back better. It is essential that action is taken now, and that we get off on the “right foot’. This is a long term programme, and London’s rivals have already started to move.”

There are always good reasons not to do things, questions to be asked, and other ways to spend money. But with businesses already calling for a new “Marshall plan”, perhaps it is time to get visionary again. London needs that long-term economic plan previously promised by Johnson and it needs its Marble Arch hill, its Camden Highline, its Tulip, its new concert hall, its Crossrail 2 and more. Otherwise we may simply be presiding over slow decline.

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